Why do we throw coins into fountains and wells in hopes of a wish being granted? The answer involves the law of contagion, a supermarket for the poor, and the undying hope of humanity.
Many cultures regard water as a gift from the gods. In a desert where water means survival, in an agricultural society where water is necessary to grow crops, and in any place where humans make a home—water is necessary for life. Drinkable water is relatively rare, so wells were built to protect sources of clean water. Various beliefs cropped up regarding the sacred and divine powers of the well, especially in European cultures. Some wells collected coins, food, or clothing as an offering of gratitude to the gods for drinkable water. Some became shrines to deities. Some became places of rest and repose for weary travelers.
Some wells were thought to have healing powers, and the sick person would toss in a piece of their clothing in hopes to be cured of their disease. A concept called the law of contagion explains this superstition—it was believed that the clothing not only carried the disease but represented the person’s disease. It acted as a token of a non-material bond with the person it belonged to and became a vehicle for the healing powers of the well’s resident deity or natural forces. The curative powers of water would transfer from the button or scrap of fabric in the well to the sick person. This same psychological law is in effect (in a negative way) when someone feels disgusted at the idea of wearing an item of clothing that once belonged to someone they dislike, or (in a positive way) when you don’t want to wash your hands after shaking the hand of someone famous.
Some wells became places of prayer and offerings of money. A well in Northumberland, England, was anciently a site of prayer and offerings in the form of coins to the Coventina, the Celtic goddess of wells and springs. An archaeological dig turned up about 16,000 coins from various eras of the Roman empire, most of them of lower value. The exchange value of the coins didn’t seem to weight the odds of the wish or prayer being granted more heavily in the person’s favor. Excavations of other wells have turned up similar results—vast numbers of coins of lower denominations, the result of people tossing in a coin as an offering as they say a prayer to a deity or plead with a supernatural power. Though wells have largely lost their connection to a particular deity, this practice persists in the form of making a wish as one tosses a coin into a well, fountain, or other source of water.
And we just can’t resist it! Throwing a coin into a wishing well or a fountain is an exercise in hope. Exchanging money for a wish directs our sense of control when our desires are unlikely or uncertain to be fulfilled. Similarly to the law of contagion at work in the diseased person’s clothing, the coin you throw in a well is an extension of yourself and your wish. Anthropologist Peter Wogan explains that when you release the coin, you release control to the water, the life force of the universe, to grant your wish. And when you look into the water, you see the coins of so many others whose wishes—superstitious or ironic or playful or secretly hopeful—led them to the well, just like you. This creates, from a private, unspoken dream, a sense of collective belonging with the hundreds of others.
One of the most famous fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It was built as the endpoint of an aqueduct called Virgo in honor of the goddess who guided those who were tired and thirsty to water. Originally, legend had it that drinking a glass of water from the fountain would lead to good fortune, good health, and a quick return to Rome. Now, drinking the water isn’t recommendable, but throwing a coin over with your right hand over your left shoulder into the fountain is said to guarantee that you will return to Rome someday. This idea was further popularized by the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain, which also promised that throwing two coins in meant falling in love with a Roman, and tossing in three coins meant that you would marry that person. Cue an insane number of tourists who wished for a Roman love interest.
What happens to all those coins? Often, the money goes to charity or toward the upkeep of the fountain or well. For example, tens of thousands of dollars in change are gathered in fountains and wells in Walt Disney World in Florida, and the proceeds are used to support foster children in the state. (You may not think your nickel is worth much, but aggregated with every other park visitor’s change, it adds up—and makes a difference for good!)
In New York City, Parks and Recreation staff clean the city’s 50+ decorative fountains every few weeks, and any change collected goes toward upkeep of the fountains themselves. However, there is usually not much to collect—usually, people take the coins before the Parks staff get to cleaning.
In Rome, so many tourists throw coins into the Trevi Fountain that it must be cleaned every night. The BBC reported that the fountains collect $4,000 in loose change from tourists every day—and authorities are tough on anyone caught skimming off coins from the fountain. The money goes to a charity organization called Caritas for such projects as running a supermarket for the needy and distributing goods to the poor.
Whether you’re wishing for eternal youth, a vacation to Italy, or a call from someone special (maybe?)—the wishing well is a spring of hope for you and a source of charitable donations for others.
Lewis, Danny. “What Happens to Coins Tossed in Fountains?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 6, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heres-what-happens-all-coins-tossed-fountains-180959314/.
Tabila, Lauren, James Green, Jonathan Kwok, Kara Thurn, and Meagan McLaughlin. “Wishing Wells: The Practice of Buying Good Fortune.” University of California–Irvine. http://www.anthropology.uci.edu/~wmmaurer/courses/anthro_money_2006/wishing.html.
Upton, Emily. “Why We Throw Coins into Fountains.” Today I Found Out, March 10, 2014. https://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/03/throw-coins-fountains/.
Wogan, Peter. “Why Do We Throw Coins in Fountains?” Greater Good Magazine, January 26, 2017. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_throw_coins_in_fountains.